Back in the late 1980s when Doordarshan was at its prime, there was this show called ‘Udaan’ that dramatised the struggles of Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya in her ambition to become the first woman DGP of an Indian state. Directed by Bhattacharya’s sister Kavita, ‘Udaan’ was a successful biographical profile of a woman achiever who helped to change people’s perception about women in police.
Back to the present and we see people hitting the cinema for a glimpse into the life of a Mary Kom or Milkha Singh. Film-makers, too, are busy conceptualising more of such biopics—for instance, the upcoming one about MS Dhoni. But will the same audience be as enthusiastic about watching the lives of real people on television for close to a month?
While most biographical films focus on the lives of sportspersons, biopics on Indian television recreate historical events and their prime movers.
Some of these ‘historicals’ that have aired on Hindi general entertainment channels (GECs) include ‘Chanakya’ and ‘The Sword of Tipu Sultan’ (DD), ‘Chandragupta Maurya’ (Imagine TV), ‘Dharti Ka Veer Yodha Prithviraj Chauhan’ (Star Plus), ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ (Zee TV), ‘Veer Shivaji’ (Colors), ‘Maharana Pratap’ (Sony Entertainment Television) and more.
Why is it that producers or broadcasters have not ventured beyond historicals in the biopic space? Is it because the content would be too boring for small-screen viewing? TVP finds out…
To begin with, TV executives and producers consider fiction shows a part of the biopic genre, as these are ‘inspired’ by true life stories. Mainstream biopics in Indian cinema are not purely biographical as they are punctuated with scripted details.
Speaking to TelevisionPost.com, Star Plus GM Gaurav Banerjee says, “In films we have a much longer history of creative pursuits; TV is a comparatively new medium. But there is no reason why we can’t or shouldn’t do biopics on television. I think it is more about the first one happening.”
Zee TV business head Pradeep Hejmadi says, “I wouldn’t say that all shows are completely in the non-biopic space, but a lot of fiction is inspired by true events. It’s just that you cannot take the name of the person and then you have to add a fictional layer. So, even if you take a biopic, you have to add fictional aspects, whether you take ‘Mary Kom’ or any other recent Bollywood movies.”
He adds, “You go to the theatre with a different expectation. The rule of the game is different there. But if I keep showing it on TV day in and day out, the concept might not work. One has to be practical in terms of how they can build a life story on a programming grid.”
If one looks at weekday GEC content, it becomes apparent that this content is inspired by true events and the only difference is that you cannot relate them to a real person. A fiction show may not reflect the life of an extraordinary human being, but then it is never altogether fictional.
Banerjee says that there are obvious inspirations around us. All Star Plus fiction shows—from ‘Diya Aur Baati Hum’ to ‘Everest’—are inspired by real life.
Whether a super achiever’s journey will be of interest to TV audiences remains a big question. Hence, producers and broadcasters often take the simpler route of showcasing inspiring stories, where some aspects of the protagonist’s struggle are inspired by real-life events.
The challenge, states Life OK EVP and GM Ajit Thakur, lies in finding the right story. “There is an opportunity, but a three-hour film is very different from a six-month story on television. I think we need to have long layered stories for biopics to happen. I don’t think it would be boring. It’s just a matter of finding the right story that can be made into a finite series.”
Ideally, for a biopic to work on TV, it should feature the right ingredients such as interesting events, entertainment and, most importantly, a limited run. One way of doing biopics on TV could be adopting the telefilm format.
At a time when fiction dominates GEC content, a 26-episode biopic would make for great content, but is it viable for broadcasters and producers?
Swastik Productions director Rahul Tewary, who is working on a historical biopic about the life of Emperor Ashoka for Colors, states, “We have already seen a fair movement towards mythological and historical series in current programming across GECs. I believe that viewers will be fairly interested in such content and there will be a lot of focus on such shows in the near future.”
However, Essel Vision Productions’ Nitin Keni begs to differ. He feels that TV audiences are not interested in biopics.
“At the end of the day, housewives want to see all the things they want to see and it doesn’t matter if it’s a biopic or not. Suddenly, everyone is trying to make a biopic by finding strength in someone’s story, but if the scriptwriter cannot mould somebody’s life into a proper story, it may not work,” he mentions.
Sphere Origins’ Sunjoy Wadhwa adds, “The genre has not yet been tapped, but I think audiences will enjoy biopics on TV. People are experimenting a lot with TV programming, but there has been nominal focus on biopics. A limitation is that it has to be a short series and can’t go to the length of a soap. A biopic could be made for TV on the basis of a large number of real events so that it makes for interesting content.”
He further states that he would personally like to make a biopic about some of the unacknowledged heroes of India.
In fact, biopics about strong female characters can also make for a great subject. While ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ on Zee TV was one such historical biopic, broadcasters are considering exploring beyond just history to find subjects.
Sony Pal and SAB senior EVP and business head Anooj Kapoor states, “There is an opportunity, and a biopic about strong women is something that we would love to make. Choosing to do a biopic means adapting it, and when you adapt rather than taking it word for word, you get the flexibility of adding a lot of elements to ensure that it sustains over a long period of time.”
A producer on condition of anonymity said that the problem with biopics on television is being true to the story. Once they start fetching good ratings, channels start dragging the storyline and thus straying from it. “In the case of ‘Jodha Akbar’ or ‘Maharana Pratap’, we are seeing storylines which are nowhere in history. Sometimes, they just keep dragging,” he said.
But Banerjee defends, “There are certain creative leaps that the writer and director will take. The viewer will see it for what it is. It will have to be an artistic interpretation of the life and not a documentary.”
Presenting another view point, Hejmadi says that ‘Jodha Akbar’ is a period drama, but it is in the fictional space and focuses on a very different aspect.
Talking about the difference between ‘Jodha Akbar’ the TV series and ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ the Bollywood film, he states, “There is a dramatic difference, as the film was a love story while the serial depicts the transformation, journey and the eventual coming together of Jodha and Akbar.”